Diet Sayler: being an artist in the Romania of Ceausescu

Diet Sayler is interviewed by Catalina Enciu

Diet Sayler (b.1939), one of the greatest European representatives of Abstract Art, tells us about the daily life of artists in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Sayler was the first Romanian artist to experiment in his artworks with the spatial aspect as perceived by visitors in motion. These were the cultural years (1956-1973) characterized by cunning political escamotages by Ceauşescu in order to improve his position leading him to take charge as General Secretary in 1965. One example of these political means was the exhibition at the Kalinderu Art Gallery (1968), which was only a chance to show the emancipation and the destalinization of the country to the entire world. It was a brilliant mise-en-scène specifically planned. Indeed, as soon as the French president Charles de Gaulle left the country the exhibition was closed. Inevitably, these political games left a mark which materialized in a new flourishing of creativity and the purchase of one of Sayler’s artworks by MoMA.

Diet Sayler © portrait 2007, Courtesy of the Artist

Cătălina Enciu: In 1968 you took part in an exhibition with Roman Cotoşman, Constantin Flondor, Ştefan Bertalan and Molnár Zoltán at the Kalinderu Art Gallery. Can you talk about it?

Diet Sayler: The Exhibition was inaugurated in May 1968 in Bucharest during the occasion of the Official State Visit of the President of France Charles de Gaulle. Roman Cotoşman, Constantin Flondor, Ştefan Bertalan, Molnár Zoltán and I were invited to display our artworks, but not as a group. It was not a collective exhibition. We all displayed our personal works as a heterogenous mix even though we all had something in common. Bertalan, Molnár and Flondor, studied Art, while Cotoşman studied Philosophy and Theology. They all had a Humanistic education, except me, I studied Math and Engineering. I can say this Exhibition was the result of intense research we started after Cotoşman’s trip to France.

CE: Why did Cotoşman go to France?

DS: Cotoşman at that time was very sick. In 1963, thanks to the Romanian patriarch he managed to obtain a passport to go to France and receive medical treatment. It was a miracle that he got a passport to travel outside the former Soviet Bloc. These 6 months staying abroad allowed him to approach and immerse himself in cultural Western Art History. When he came back, he brought a new vigor to the local artistic atmosphere like a breath of fresh air that immediately influenced all of us. In my opinion he was the most intellectual of the group, he was a pictor doctus.

CE: Did you know each other?

DS: I met Cotoşman for the first time in Podlipny’s atelier while I got to know Flondor, Bertalan and Molnár 5 years later.

CE: What was the cultural artistic influence in the year 1968?

DS: To understand the relevance of ’68 it is necessary to know how people used to live in the two decades before. The 50s were a very dark period as they were marked by strict Stalinist policies. It was impossible to find any kind of publication coming from the western world. At the beginning of the 60s, as in the year 1968, we witnessed a kind of unfrozen period. In Bucharest we had a kind of Spring very much like what happened in Prague. It was a time that offered more openings to the artistic environment. In the 70s the home policies underwent a sudden change characterized by very strong oppression that caused dramatic suffering to the citizens of the country. Those were the hardest years when the people had to face the rationing of hot water, heating, electricity and food. We could say 1968 has been a year of light in the dark communist period.

Diet Sayler. A.K. 59 1969, oil on paper, 100×70 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Courtesy of the Artist
Diet Sayler, Untitled  # 1 – 1970, oil on paper, 100 x 70 cm, TATE MODERN, London, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: In 1969 MoMA bought your artwork A. K. 59. Can you tell us how they contacted you to buy it?

DS: During his State Visit, the French President Charles de Gaulle was joined by the Minister of Culture Andre Malraux and a lot of French journalists who took pictures and wrote about our works displayed for the occasion. That’s why one day, Andrew Stevick, a gentleman from New York, came to see me. It was very hard for journalists and critics to be allowed to meet a local artist to interview him or buy his works. The state maintained the control on everything and everyone. They had to have special permission from the minister which was almost impossible to get. It is still unknown to me how this exactly happened. We were not allowed to know this kind of backstage. I didn’t know this man or what expedient was used to get him permission. I never heard from him again. Shortly my work arrived at the MoMA and I got a ridiculous payment of 50 dollars. When Ceauşescu’s police found that I had sold one of my works it was really dramatic, as according to the Dictator’s law I had committed 2 offences: firstly I received dollars as payment which was forbidden, secondly I had commercial interaction with duşmanul de clasă.

CE: Where did you use to meet the journalists?

DS: In Bucharest I lived in a space 2 by 4 meters large with no windows and toilet facilities. This was my house and at the same time my atelier. I wasn’t the only one living is such conditions. There I met most of my visitors.

CE: Were all these meetings official or were you secretly meeting them?

DS: Obviously some of them were official meetings and others were not. For example, when Cornelia Olivier came to Romania to interview me, at first she wasn’t allowed to talk to me. She didn’t give up and, I don’t know how, in the end our meeting was approved. She was escorted to my atelier by a Securitate member in charge of controlling everything we were talking about. Ironically, I was asked to answer in Romanian even though we could have been speaking English. I knew the language, but I wasn’t allowed to speak it.

CE: From 1969 to 1972 you took part in several international exhibitions, but you were not allowed to leave the country to participate in the setups and see your works displayed. What is the reason why you were not issued a passport?

DS: In that period, it wasn’t easy to get passport especially for people like me, since I was considered a suspicious person from a political point of view.

CE: What was your feeling about this?

DS: Well, is was not easy. It was painful to see other artists being able to go because they were close to the Regime or even members of it.

CE: How were these Exhibitions organised?

DS: Most of the times, everything was organised by the UAP. We were not allowed to travel with our art works. Gallerists had to plan arrangements with the UAP. We, as artists, were not involved in this.

Diet Sayler. Spazio Cinetico 1971, strutture di alluminio, specchi murali, Technic Club, Pitesti, Romania, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: Can you talk about your work Kinetic Space at Tehnic Club in Piteşti?

DS: It was a commissioned work. Even if between 1971 and 1972 the government started to lean towards a closed-political model, it was still possible to realise this type of works. I realised two kinetic rooms. They were 3 by 3 by 3 meters and it was possible to go inside them. The work Kinetic Space at Piteşti Tehnic Club may be considered the first Kinetic installation ever realized in Romania. No one was aware of these type of works. I was the first one doing that in the country. This work had a huge impact, like what we did at the Kalinderu Art Gallery in Bucharest. It was something new, never done before. The installation remained there for several years and it was even shown on television. But as soon as I left the country, even if they kept promoting my work, they removed my name from it. After some time, when I was living in Germany, I heard the installation had been destroyed. I don’t know what happened exactly, I just can’t stop thinking that it was a huge loss for the Romanian art scene.

Diet Sayler, Solo Show 2020, Neues Museum, Nuremberg, Courtesy of the Artist
Diet Sayler, Solo Show 2020, Neues Museum, Nuremberg, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: What was your impact with the new artistic scene in Germany?

DS: It was a huge change! When I left my country I couldn’t bring with me any of my works. I arrived in Germany with nothing in my hands, not even my birth certificate. I had to start everything again. Obviously, it was very hard because everything was different in Germany. It was a cultural shock. This great change affected my art because all the time while I was in Romania I used to work only through my imagination using only black and white. I worked using colour at beginning of my career, between the ’50s and the ’60s and then from the 60s till the 80s I didn’t use it anymore. Immigration is an act of violence because it leaves a mark. I remember that in my first period as an immigrant I started a cathartic phase, my artistic production started to be become whiter and whiter.

CE: What about the artworks you left in Romania?

DS: Nearly all the them disappeared. The works of mine which were in the museums or at the UAP are not there anymore. That is because when I left the country they deleted me. It was like that. The other works remained with my friends.

CE: Have you found them?

DS: I managed to have some works located back in 1985. Thanks to some friends who risked great trouble to save something, a few works remain that I produced at the beginning of my career. We must realize it was very hard to hide these kind of art works. People were terrified of the Securitate. However, some of my friends tried to save them, also hiding them even in places not suitable for the conservation of artworks, like garages, cellars and attics. Of course, they got damaged with time, inevitably. Nevertheless, some works which survived have had even a more mocking fate. Some of my colleagues decided to keep my works instead of giving them back to me for a matter of money, they were convinced my work had a significant value in the western market.

Catalina Enciu